When I moved to America, I found that US law didn’t recognize my Australian driver’s license – it was, for the purposes of driving in Los Angeles, as useful as a Turkmenistani fishing permit. So I biffed off to the DMV where I did a theory test with a bunch of teens and got myself a learner’s permit. This seemed rough, after seventeen years behind the wheel, but I was cheered to learn that, while my Australian license didn’t count as a “driving license” it did – via some legislative and metaphysical loophole – make me a “licensed driver”, capable of supervising myself to learn to drive. Myself. Or something.
As I left the center, permit in hand, I thought back to rural Western Australia and the last driving test I’d taken, half a life ago. I’d had perfect instruction from my kindly parents, who taught me to drive in a car as placid as milk cow on Benadryl. But the received wisdom was that you should have a lesson or two with a professional, just to make sure you knew the technicalities needed to pass the test. So I commissioned one.
Our first session did not go well. My instructor, “Peg”, was a lemon-faced old woman who spent lessons sucking down cigarettes and scowling – presumably at the curse kept her on this plane of existence. My parents’ property is on a hill and the driveway exits onto a very fast, blind corner, around which hurtle very large trucks carrying tree trunks. To get out safely you have to summon your nerve, rev the engine, drop the clutch, and fucking GO – because after you check nothing’s coming, your “not gonna to die today!” assessment has a three second shelf-life.
Our family car had a soft clutch and needed a generous stomp on the accelerator to make it move, but my folks taught me to do this safely, and I felt good as I sat at the bottom of the drive, engine idling, hands on the wheel, commanding Peg’s car like a Spitfire pilot. I nodded at her, revved hard, and dropped the clutch.
As the fishtailing and tire-smoke indicated, Peg’s car was a little jumpier than ours. Busy hauling the wheel left right left right left to stop us spinning into trucks that whooshed with blaring horns, it took me a second to realize that Peg was hitting me, hard:
“STOP [SMACK] THIS [SMACK] FUCKEN [SMACK] CAR [SMACK] NOW!”
Because of physics, this was easier said than done. But I managed to get the car under control and bounce to a stop in the hard-shoulder. The car ticked. Smoke rose from the tires. Peg lit a cigarette and gave me another whack for good measure.
“NEVER FUCKEN DRIVE LIKE THAT AGAIN!”
“Right… but maybe don’t… hit your learner driver?”
Things didn’t improve, and to this day Peg and I exchange no Christmas cards. But several weeks later, we’d both lived long enough for her to admit, in a grudging waft of cancer, that I was “probably ready not to fuck up my test too much.” I thought she was probably ready to process to the next level of hell, but kept this to myself for fear of another beating.
I chose to take my test even further out in the country, because I understood these examiners gave you more of a sporting chance. That proved sound. A number of things can make you immediately fail a driving test: rolling through a red light, missing a stop-sign, stalling sideways in a turn-lane on a busy highway only to find that it isn’t so much a turn-lane as a “lane” and you’ve just stopped rush-hour traffic – that sort of thing. Happily, my examiner was an enormously fat man eating a violently messy hamburger and when each of these events occurred, my man had hamburger trouble.
“Fucken hell”, he’d mutter, as sauce splurted down his shirt. “Shit on a stick…” as tomato and egg shot out and spattered on the dashboard. “Fucken bloody fuck!” as half the patty slopped in his lap. Every time I “failed” my test, the hamburger came good, and my examiner waved me on with a “Don’ worry mate”, as he tried – in vain – to scrub the catastrophic spillage off his belly with a very small napkin. This only served to spread the sauce around, get his hands covered, and make him near tearfully furious as he waved them about: “What the fuck am I gonna do about these?!”
After we pulled back into the testing centre, I turned to him, still scrubbing away, and asked with trembling voice: “So… did I pass?” I looked down to see if I could glean the answer from his sauce-spattered clipboard. It looked like a bandage from the Somme.
“Yeah mate,” he said, trying to open the door with his slimy hands. “I just need … a bluddy wet-wipe.”
Driving after that was relatively uneventful. The most danger I put myself in was when I’d run out of cash as an undergraduate, and “borrow” my landlord Andy’s lawnmower fuel to fill my 1978 Golf. I’d start it up with a BANG and see Andy running out through the blue smoke: “OI! Have you been fillin’ your fucken car with my mower fuel again?!” And I’d call back “BEEN HOT ANDY, MUST’VE EVAPORATED” as I dropped the clutch and roared away to the fading yell of “Evaporated my arse!” I’d replace Andy’s mower fuel when I got paid, so after a while he realized I was good for it, and we slipped into a détente that didn’t go further than the threat of curbside violence.
All this was fresh in mind as my American wife and I drove to the DMV on a sunny Californian afternoon in 2015. I’d spent the past few days remembering “how to drive” so as to pass a test – checking mirrors, shuffling hands, not driving with a foot hanging out the window, that sort of thing. And so, when I pulled around the corner towards the DMV, I gave my wife a confident grin and asked how the “learner” was doing.
“Real good”, she said, gripping the seat. “But in the States we drive on the right-hand side of the street.”
I swerved to avoid the oncoming bus and turned off at the next intersection.
“What’re you doin’? You’ll be late for your test!”
“Just got to pick up a fucken hamburger…”